Reflections on our first amendment freedoms in a foreign country

As I prepare to leave Amman, following a fruitful visit writing some final thoughts in a forthcoming book, visiting a friend, and seeing nonprofit field operations in action, I paused to reflect on the current state of discourse in our country. We live in a partisan environment where identity politics overrules civility to our fellow human being, where students have begun to mobilize against what they deem as older generational failure to address existential threats (climate change, student debt, post-college employment, the national debt, racism, gun violence and more), where more people have begun tuning out network news (on the right and left), where fear and apathy push voices out of the public square, but where many civic organizations and leaders encourage people to constructively contribute to important conversations in their communities.

Jordan has many more refugees and challenges of immigration than the United States. The vast majority of people inside its borders do not have equal rights. Few believe they can express their fears and be heard. Jordanians blame Iraqis for having spiked rents, and other prices more generally, during the waves of displacement that occurred during the conflict in Iraq. Palestinians feel they will never hold the same job prospects as their Jordanian countrymen, even though many have been here for fifty years. The freedom to assemble and petition the government for grievance pales next to the vibrancy in the United States, yet you would never know comparing the atmosphere here.

Jordan is a model of stability for the region. Jordanians go about their everyday lives. Many have significant grievances. I spent time interacting with nonprofits dealing in the refugee space, learning about the extreme biases and challenges that refugees face. They are not allowed to work. Many can’t afford to put their children through school. They spend their time agonizing over basic necessities, Maslow’s hygiene needs at the lowest level of the hierarchy.

Contrast the relative calm in Jordan to the tumultuous climate in the United States, and I believe it comes from a vibrant citizenry, not only aware of its rights but freely exercising them. A substantial portion of the population has awakened to the threat of losing their rights, whether freely practicing their religion, stating their beliefs, or other means of expression. The very tenor and clamor of expression in the U.S. leads me to assess that citizens and institutions are pushing back against perceived threats. It may be messy. It may sound noisy and shrill, but it may just exhibit the traits of those fundamental rights, granted by a Creator, freely expressed by individuals against perceived state infringements or ineptitude.

So, as much as I am an introvert by nature and need quiet and solitude to recharge my batteries, I take heart from the noise. I see leaders stepping up to start blog conversations, leading coffee talk discussion groups, and engaging their civic institutions to ensure their voices are heard. I may continue to seek my news from late night comedy or podcasts, but I’ll laugh at the comedy while reveling in the idea that democracy lives in the United States, practiced by its people and institutions on a daily basis. That’s a nice thought to come home to, in addition to rejoining my family after some time apart.

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